Recently while riding in the car with a friend of mine, I found myself listening to a mainstream R&B radio hit where the word love replaced an expletive meaning sex. Rare, right? Tempted to dismiss it because it’s so common, it hit me that, soul, R&B, hip hop and other forms of contemporary popular American music have shifted from discussing “love” and “sex” to a merger of the two, with love largely reduced to a synonym for or pretext to talk about, well, sex. It seems that a lot of artists don’t even know how to talk about love anymore without talking about sex, which is a shame particularly with R&B and soul where we historically have heard songs about the complexities of love relationships in a way that personally resonates with us. (“Love and Happiness” anyone?) However, there are a new breed of artists who’ve seem to make it a mission to tell authentic stories about love in the lives of real people, and they come from a peculiar place, gospel.
Artists like PJ Morton, Mali Music and even hip-hop artist Lecrae seek to use gospel to inform how they talk about love, in a way that doesn’t resort to raunchy lyrics in order to reach their audiences. While it’s no secret that a large proportion of African-American recording artists have a background performing in the church, gospel artists who have allowed the gospel to inform how they sing about love have been able to produce particularly poignant and powerful masterpieces, such as Sam Cooke (of the Soul Stirrers), Aretha Franklin (daughter of gospel luminary C.L. Franklin) and Donny Hathaway (raised by his grandmother, gospel artist Martha Cromwell). Morton, Mali and Lecrae help open the door again to the idea that singing about love should involve a vivid look at the gamut of experiences involved in a love relationship, beyond just sex. Potentially they can use their voices to capture audiences and even breathe new life into the R&B and soul genres.
Gospel artists are often criticized when they transition into secular genres like soul and R&B, but artists like PJ Morton believe its part of his calling. He writes in his song “Why Can’t I Talk About Love,” “Love is God, God is love, so why can’t it get spoken of.” He expounds on this notion in his book of the same name. The underlying position that he takes is that, if God is love, it’s both appropriate and important that Christians sing about it, and that it is counterintuitive to give secular music a monopoly on writing about romantic love. For Morton, this approach has worked as his music is very adept at talking about loving someone else without hyper-sexualizing the topic or being overly narcissistic in talking about his own emotions. He’s also primed to make an increasing impact on music with his role as keyboardist for Maroon 5 and affiliation with Young Money.